Introduction to Jainism
Jainism, one of the oldest religions of the world, has a history that dates back to the beginnings of another religion, Hinduism, which is claimed to be as eternal as time. Some claim Jainism to be a sect of Hinduism but it is really a different religion, what with its almost zealous approach to what a Jain can eat and do for his living. Adherents to this faith are called Jains. I, being a practicing Jain myself, have seen it from very close quarters. One of the most basic tenets of this religion is non-violence. Defined in a classical sense, this means abhorrence of all kinds of violence -- be it due to your words, actions or even thoughts. But we being mere mortals, there is some relaxation for us when it comes to words or thoughts but action is not spared.
Vegan or vegetarian -- you decide
Non-violence in action means a feeling of compassion towards not just humans but all living beings. From this basic thought emerged one of the rules for the most basic need of humans -- food. So, being a Jain means following a one very simple rule -- you cannot kill anything for your living. Following this one simple rule means we can only eat food derived from plants -- all kinds of meat is out. This includes fish, poultry, insects, mammals and even eggs. Eggs are believed to contain elements that may become a living being later on, so eggs are out. Following this simple logic, all dairy products are kosher simply because you do not have to kill anything for getting milk. It is treated at par with fruits of a tree. This is where the schism between vegetarianism and vegans lies in India. By this same logic, though, all kinds of root vegetables are out. The reason being that there are many insects which get killed when we pull out a plant and killing is not allowed. So, potatoes, onions, garlics, carrots are all banished. This is what I believe is taking it too far. I do not follow this rule, otherwise I will be starved if I go to any other country in the world!! And I travel a lot. All Jain temples must follow this rule, though. So, the food served in temples (yes, they do serve food in almost all big Jain temples in India) is devoid of any of these items. Then, for the rainy months (in India, that is end of June to end of October), there are restrictions on eating leafy vegetables because it is believed that they breed small insects in those humid months and you cannot kill them. Some of the vegetables which are believed to be harboring small insects will never find their place in Jain kitchens. One of them is eggplant or brinjal. I have never tasted brinjal in my life. But this is my personal belief that we are stretching it too far.
The rules for Jain monks are even more strict. It is believed that just by the act of your breathing, many microorganisms die, so most Jain monks wear a mask to avoid this killing. They do not take bath for many months lest they kill microorganisms breeding on their body and when they do take a bath, they do a heavy penance after that.
India is home to the largest population of vegetarians in the world and the vegetarianism followed in India is mostly on the lines of Jainism. Vegan is where we shun all animal products including milk and eggs but that is not what traditional Indian vegetarianism means. Dairy products are the mainstay of many Indian vegetarian dishes and I personally support this kind of vegetarianism. There are thousands of people like me who have never tasted any kind of meat in their entire life. The range of dishes available in a vegetarian kitchen is mesmerizing. It is a big surprise to the outer world what magic can be done on vegetables and other plant products to transform and amalgamate them into decadent fantasies. Come to India and enjoy its version and variety of vegetarian food.